Space Invaders isn't a simple generation-defining throwback like the entrepreneurial Pong. It doesn't rely on the imaginative creativity of early Nintendo titles. Space Invaders was designed to be a major work of art in the emerging world of videogames. Thirty years ago, Space Invaders invaded America, descending in wiggling tentacles, row upon row. Players were trapped on the ground -- a single missile dodging between rapidly decaying shields.
Space Invaders' shoot-or-be-shot gameplay used enemies and shields as environmental elements, and it laid the groundwork for games like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Halo 3. But since Space Invaders' arrival and ascension in the late 1970s, the series has become more of an influence and an icon than a working videogame. The invaders' most playful recent attacks have usually been found in the work of street artist Invader, who has plastered tile mosaics of the aliens into signs around the world.
Space Invaders Extreme is ostensibly a game published as part of the "Space Invaders 30th Anniversary." (Says so on the box.) But in another decade it will probably be featured in the "40th Anniversary" videogame edition along with the other Space Invaders spin-offs that the game has occasionally spun off. Space Invaders Extreme is substantially different from Space Invaders. The tentacled monsters are given the place of honor, flying in series of swarms varying from dense, screen-spanning masses to lighthearted formations. Flying saucers still zoom overhead. But the shields now shield the aliens. And the aliens come in sizes ranging from bullet-dodging diminutive to durably giant. And sometimes the aliens drop power-ups that give me laser guns, or multi-bullet guns, or even shields.
I thought Space Invaders Extreme's single multiplayer game and five single-player "levels" were a bit skimpy, even for a $20 game. But they turned out to be a gameroom's worth of Extreme, with screen after screen full of aliens capped off by giant bosses. Behind the battles, techno-animated backdrops churn like billboards in the Ginza district. The soundtrack rings like a pachinko parlor. A woman's voice intones "jackpot" in rhythm with the gentle electronica, while my bullets blast pinballish dings and pings.
THE GOOD: Space Invaders Extreme's interactive soundset and soundtrack resembles some of Electroplankton or Patapon's coolest grooves, with the game's music increasing in rhythm and intensity with my shooting's rate and accuracy. Increasingly, videogame soundtracks are providing some of the richest sound-design opportunities available.
THE BAD: No unlockable version of the original Space Invaders is included. No trivia or birthday biography. Just a new, based-on-the-original game that doesn't even include a custom "invader level" designer. Sorry you couldn't make it to the party, Space Invaders. I missed you.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Space Invaders Extreme is an addicting handheld arcade shooter with Space Invaders style, but none of its classic gameplay.